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Showing posts from July, 2009

Cleveland's Emerald Necklace

Long an industrial city and once famous for its polluted river and lake front, Cleveland, Ohio, is now recognized for its fine network of parks and nature preserves. Known locally as the Emerald Necklace, the refuges line the rim of the Metro Area, from Headland Dunes, northeast of the city (on Lake Erie), to the Rocky River Reservation, a 16 mile long greenbelt along Cleveland's western edge.

Between these two preserves are Mentor Marsh, the Holden Arboretum, Chapin State Forest and Hach-Otis Sanctuary, all to the northeast, Tinkers Creek State Nature Preserve, to the southeast, and Cuyahoga Valley National Park, to the south. Numerous trails and bikeways provide access to these parks, which harbor scenic waterfalls, hemlock groves, rugged gorges, spectacular rock formations and natural wetlands. Of course, they are also home to a wide variety of plant and animal life.

Too often, beginning naturalists assume that they must travel to vast wilderness areas to find nature's bounty…

A Voice of Optimism

Undaunted by the summer heat and the winter chill, the Carolina wren sings through the seasons, his loud, clear melody echoing through our neighborhoods. Common throughout most of the eastern U.S., this small songbird is easily identified by his cinnamon-brown plumage, white eye stripe, white throat and typical wren silhouette.

Aggressive and independent, the Carolina wren is usually found alone, rummaging through thickets or delivering his song from an open perch. After pairing up in early spring, this permanent resident is known for nesting in a variety of sites, from natural tree cavities to mailboxes or discarded boots. Once the young are raised, Carolina wrens resume their solitary lifestyle and, unlike most insectivores, do not migrate south for the winter. During that season, they scour the leaf litter for hibernating insects and often visit the suet block; hardy and adaptable, these wrens will also consume small seeds through the colder months.

There is an optimistic tone to…

Poppies and Tobacco

Through the course of the Iraq-Afghanistan War, Americans have become increasingly aware of the poppy industry and its effect on politics, crime and health across the globe. How, we wonder, could a country condone the cultivation of this crop, the source of 90% of the world's opium (and, by extension, its heroin). Yet, for the impoverished country of Afghanistan, the sale of this crop represents 30% of its gross national product.

In our wisdom, America has attempted to destroy the poppy fields or, when feasible, to encourage Afghan farmers to grow other crops (most of which increase the farmers' expenses and decrease their incomes). After all, some of the profits from this despicable market go to the Taliban, the primary enemies of peace and democracy in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, back home, we ignore (if not actively support) the tobacco farmers of the Bible Belt, even though this legal industry kills far more Americans than does the poppy trade of Afghanistan. It seems unlikely t…

Flower Bed Jungle

After cutting the grass yesterday afternoon, I grabbed a cold drink and retreated to the shade of our front porch. Looking out over a naturalized flower bed, I discovered a wealth of activity in the hot, mid day sun. Bees, butterflies and various flies moved among the blossoms, feasting on their bounty of nectar. In the dense foliage below, beetles, crickets and other assorted bugs could be seen, hopping between stems or lounging in the shadows. Dragonflies and damselflies hovered above this suburban jungle while a spider repaired his secluded web, hoping to snare an unwary victim. Of course, there was surely a great deal more activity beyond the range of my aging vision.

Watching an ant navigate the floor of the bed, I imagined the experience of a human, shrunk to the size of these insects, as he attempted to cross this forbidding jungle. Climbing over logs of mulch and winding through the foliage, he would have to dodge carnivorous beetles and voracious spiders. Negotiating mu…

Toxic Greenery

Companies that manufacture herbicides and insecticides for our lawns and gardens often reassure us that these agents are safe for our families and our pets. Of course, our common residential pets do not eat vegetation and their life spans may be too short to notice any secondary effects. And the companies do not report any 60-70 year studies that absolve their products from long term effects on human health.

Neither do these chemical vendors provide data on toxicity to earthworms, beneficial insects, toads, snakes, birds, field mice, shrews and other residential wildlife. Even if studies failed to demonstrate an impact on these creatures, secondary and tertiary consumers (such as fox, hawks and owls) might be at risk, since toxins concentrate along the food chain. Then there is the issue of runoff, where chemicals and fertilizers spread on our yards drain into marshlands, lakes and bays, where amphibians, fish and other aquatic species are threatened.

To believe that any chemical ap…

The Dilution of Science

Of the eighty-plus channels that we receive via our cable service, few are devoted to science education. Most offer sitcoms, reality shows, info-entertainment, celebrity worship, sports, crime investigations, cooking and home improvement. Indeed, there is more religious than science-based programming, an unsettling commentary on American society.

Though the Discovery channel launched with a promising array of science programs, it, like many others, has succumbed to the appeal of reality series, often devoting long segments to the dangerous work of crab fisherman, ice road truckers and chain saw warriors. PBS and the History Channel offer some quality science programming but, relative to other topics, its time allotment remains quite small. Finally, the Weather Channel, which prides itself in keeping us informed about storm threats and atmospheric conditions, is chock-full of melodramatic sagas, giddy celebrities, personal interest stories and tangential entertainment.

While science prog…

Musicians of the Night

By late July, the Midwestern dusk has the sound of a disjointed orchestra, tuning up before the nightly show. The annual "dog-day" cicadas are winding down from an early evening peak but their rising clamour still rings through the neighborhood. The fiddlers, various crickets and katydids, deliver tentative, raspy tunes from their secluded outposts while an assortment of chirps, warbles and peents are provided by the late-day birds (cardinals, wrens and nighthawks, respectively).

As darkness settles in, the cicada racket and birdsong fade away and the fiddlers, as if responding to an unseen conductor, begin to call in unison, their loud buzz rising and falling in harmony. The night concert has begun and will continue into the early morning hours. The intensity of their "music" reflects the urgency of its intent, a desperate effort to attract mates before the season of heat and humidity comes to an end.

Most of these crickets and katydids hatched within the past t…

Eclipse of Reason

Yesterday's solar eclipse unfolded across a swath of Asia, triggering a spectrum of human emotion, from awe to fear. Providing a spectacular opportunity for scientists and photographers, the eclipse was likely a fascinating diversion for most of the population and, centuries after Galileo and Copernicus, a mystical event for others. While astronomers and mathematicians are able to accurately predict the time and location of their occurrence, solar eclipses are still accepted as omens by those who refuse to embrace science.

Due to a number of factors, including our distance from the sun, our moon's elliptical orbit (and its 5 degree variance from Earth's orbital plane), total solar eclipses occur somewhere on the globe every 1-2 years; however, for any given location, they are very rare, developing (on average) every 375 years. It is no wonder that, before the age of science, worldwide communication and global travel, a total solar eclipse might have instilled fear in the…

Canadian Relief

Our hot, Midwestern summer has been tempered over the past few days by a northerly flow, ushering cool Canadian air into the region. A high pressure ridge over the West Coast, which is bringing hot weather from the Southwest deserts to the Pacific Northwest, has produced a trough to its east, allowing the cool air to spill southward. This flow has been augmented by low pressure over the Northeast Coast; counterclockwise winds around the low have kept New England in its cool, wet pattern and, further west, are dragging Canadian air into the Heartland.

Yesterday, the trough was reinforced by another front out of Alberta, triggering severe weather across the Central Plains and heavy rain to its east and south. The broad sweep of Canadian air now stretches from the Rockies to the East Coast, bringing below average temperatures to much of the country. Unfortunately, it may not reach South Texas, where a severe drought persists.

Since the jet stream generally stays well to our north throu…

Walter and Michael

One was an internationally respected journalist and newsman, who kept us informed through the tumultuous years of the sixties and seventies; he died, apparently of natural causes, at age 92. The other, famous across the globe for his musical genius, his eccentric lifestyle and his plastic surgeries, died at age 50 of a suspected drug overdose.

Despite their obvious differences, both men had a major influence on the careers of their colleagues and, more importantly, on society as a whole. As with all humans, both were the products of inborn talent, personal commitment and life experience. Molded by family, friends and the public at large, they accepted their opportunities with passion and, few would argue, altered the course of their chosen professions.

Some might judge their individual contributions based solely on a superficial understanding of their lives. After all, ignorance begets intolerance and fame invites criticism. Better that we celebrate their achievements than dwell on thei…

Friends and Lovers

In the course of our brief human lives, we generally make a large number of friends. Some are casual acquaintances while others are lasting friends, directly impacting the course of our lives. Both groups offer companionship, unique points of view and a vital source of color amidst our tedious obligations and personal turmoil. For all of these benefits, we appreciate our friends and, even after they have left our lives, we think of them often.

In contrast, the few humans with whom we have a deep romantic relationship, however brief, occupy an enduring place in our soul that matches or may supercede our emotional tie to genetic relatives. At times painfully concious, the bond to a past lover haunts our mind, surfacing in dreams or whenever certain triggers are encountered (music, dates, places or scenarios in books and film, to name a few). Unlike our memories tied to friendships, these recollections are, more often than not, launch pads for regret, self doubt and unhappiness.

Why i…

Summer Nights and Winter Days

Having lived in various parts of the country and as one who enjoys seasonal change, I am of the opinion that Metro Denver offers the best climate in the U.S. Though the intense sunshine can produce significant summer heat, the low humidity and high elevation allow the air to cool rapidly during the night. Just sitting in the shade on a hot summer day offers significant relief and overnight temperatures generally fall into the fifties (F). Mornings are pleasantly cool (if not chilly) and summer evenings are mild as the sun drops behind the Rockies.

Though many Americans believe that Denver is covered with snow for nine months of the year (it can actually snow in the city anytime from September to May), winters are rather mild when compared to the Upper Midwest and Northeast. Again, the abundant sunshine, dry air and high elevation produce comfortable daytime temperatures, augmented at times by downsloping winds (chinooks); for example, the average high temperature in late January is in …

Summer Blooms

After a colorful spring, our Colorado farm usually enters a period of muted greens and browns until the late summer monsoon brings back the rain. This year, following heavy rainfall over the past few months, the landscape remains verdant and our usual summer blooms are especially vivid.

Our large linden (basswood) tree is full of yellow racemes and the rose of sharon are just beginning to bloom; we have three varieties of Hibiscus syriacus on the farm, with white, purple and blue flowers. The blue spirea is also beginning to open its flower clusters and will continue to do so for the next six weeks. Pockets of wildflowers include summer species such as purple coneflower, Indian blanket and prairie sunflowers. The trumpet vine, a magnet for orioles and hummingbirds, is especially prolific this year and a large crop of thistle, their purple heads just opening, should keep the lesser goldfinches around for their late summer nesting.

For we humans, these colorful flowers are a welcome addit…

The Patience of Fungi

In the nineteen years that we have owned our Littleton, Colorado farm, this has been the wettest spring and summer. As a consequence, I have seen more varieties of fungi on the property this year than I had over the previous eighteen combined. Maroon mats of slime mold, puff balls and a wide diversity of mushrooms and fungal growths are scattered across the fields and flower beds.

Of course, the fungi have been here all along, their mycelia infiltrating every patch of soil and every piece of decaying vegetation. The fruiting bodies that we observe are merely their structures for spore production and dispersal; the average mushroom releases millions (if not billions) of spores during its brief presence. Since moist soil conditions favor spore survival and germination, the fruiting bodies usually appear after periods of heavy precipitation (hence their abundance this year).

Observing nature from a human perspective, we are often amazed by the slow pace at which some life cycles unfold…

Natural Recylcing

Heading out back yesterday, we were immediately struck by the pungent odor of decay. Having been unable to entice a visiting groundhog into our cage-trap over the previous week, we immediately suspected that he was the victim. Indeed, a collection of flies near the corner of the deck signaled his location and, after removing a few boards, we found the hapless critter, half consumed by tiny, writhing maggots; he was soon relocated to a burial plot along the back fence.

We are all familiar with the sickly sweet fragrance of decomposition, having passed dead animals on the trail or caught the whiff of a bloated carcass along the highway. And while we often resort to embalming fluids, mortician magic and caskets to sanitize the deaths of humans, these measures offer but a temporary reprieve from nature's relentless course.

Death and decomposition are unpleasant to encounter but they are just as natural as birth and maturation. The decay and recycling of plant and animal matter are e…

Nature's Highways

Long before highways and railroads crisscrossed the landscape, rivers provided navigation routes for waterfowl, migrant mammals and human explorers. Even today, despite dams, levees and channelization, they connect the varied ecosystems of our planet.

Standing on the banks of the Missouri, near Columbia, I often ponder the source of the water that streams past me, on its way to join the Mississippi in St. Louis. I know that much of it fell as snow across the high mountains of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Some cascaded through Front Range canyons, even passing within a mile of our Littleton farm. Some exploded from geysers in Yellowstone National Park, dropped over Yellowstone Falls and flowed on toward Livingston, Billings and the Yellowstone's junction with the Missouri, in North Dakota. And some fell from massive supercells on the High Plains of Kansas before flowing eastward via the broad watersheds of the Republican and Smoky Hill Rivers.

Rivers have sculpted our landscap…

Extreme Heat

In the midst of our steamy, Midwestern summer, it is reassuring to know that our high temperatures are not even close to the conditions endured in other parts of the globe. As one might expect, the hottest weather occurs in desert regions, where the humidity is low and the air is sinking; both factors augment the density of air, increasing its ability to absorb heat. While, for any given temperature, humid air will feel more uncomfortable, the presence of water vapor limits the air's heating capacity.

The highest air temperature ever recorded on the planet was 136 F, in Libya, followed closely by 134 F in Death Valley, California. High temperature records across the desert regions of the Middle East and Australia are generally in the mid to upper 120s. In contrast, Norway's record high is 96F, Iceland has not topped 87F and the highest recording in Antarctica has been 59F. Perhaps the most unnerving record (for those of us who prefer cool weather) is that held by the Danakil Ba…

Mid Summer Evening

Were it not for the mosquitoes, it would have been a pleasant evening in the backyard. The temperature hovered near 78 F and oppressive humidity was still far to our south. The clear song of a Carolina wren rang through the neighborhood while a family of house wrens scoured our wood border. Bees and a lone hummingbird moved among the mimosa blossoms and a downy woodpecker chiseled the end of a dead sycamore limb.

Overhead, squadrons of chimney swifts strafed the treetops while nighthawks drifted higher in the evening sky, sharp peents announcing their presence. Annual cicadas, gearing up for the dog days of summer, delivered their pulsating calls from the shade trees and, as daylight faded, fireflies flashed from the shrubbery, their season of love beginning to wane.

Heat and humidity are poised to re-enter Missouri today and our North Country days will soon be a memory. This is, after all, the American Heartland and the promise of autumn is but a distant reward.

Gender and Happiness

Women are, by nature, more sensitive, introspective and empathetic than are men. They involve themselves deeply in the lives of their family and friends, worrying about their welfare and sharing their burdens. This is especially true of female friendships, which are far more intimate than the casual relationships of men and involve a great deal of commiseration over the problems in each other's lives.

By contrast, men skim across the surface of life, focusing on their personal needs. While they cherish their role of provider and are concerned about the welfare of their friends and family, they do not dwell on such matters. Not generally open about themselves, they accept a rather superficial knowledge of their friends, limiting discussions and interactions to the common issues and pleasant diversions of everyday life.

Though clinical depression, unrelated to specific life events, is equally common in men and women, general unhappiness is, in my experience, far more common in wom…

Mexico's Volcanic Belt

Just south of Mexico City, a 560-mile chain of volcanoes crosses the country from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Composed of more than 20 peaks and many more cinder cones, this Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt has been developing since the Miocene, about 12 million years ago; over that time, volcanoes have risen, erupted and, eventually, eroded to the surface and today's landscape is but a snapshot in geologic time (most of the "modern" features have appeared over the past 1-2 million years). Indeed, satellite photos demonstrate many old calderas (remnants of past volcanoes) while Paricutin, in southwest Mexico, has risen in just the past 66 years.

Encompassing Mexico's three highest peaks, Pico de Orizaba (18,490 feet), Popocatepetl (17,802) and Ixtaccihuatl (17,160), this volcanic belt has formed (and is forming) as a consequence of subduction. The Cocos Plate, like the Juan de Fuca Plate of the Pacific Northwest and the Nazca Plate off the west coast of South …

Turtles in Trees

After the heavy rains of this past week, the seasonal lake at our local wetland is as high as I've ever seen it, lapping onto and over the graveled trail. As a result, the local wildlife have been forced to adapt; those that favor shallows (frogs, herons, water snakes) have moved to backwater areas or onto the flooded fields while fish have invaded the lake from adjacent, swollen streams. Aquatic turtles, their basking logs submerged by the deluge, are now lounging on the lower limbs of young sycamores that rise from the drowned banks.

In general, the flooding has reduced the visibility of many species but, yesterday afternoon, there was still plenty of activity on the meadows and in the riparian woodlands. White-tailed deer and muskrats were more conspicuous than usual, perhaps driven from their daylight haunts by the high water. Kingfishers chattered above the lake, feasting on the influx of prey, while dragonflies, hitting their mid-summer peak, zoomed across the wetlands. …

Wolf Spiders

My wife is not fond of spiders and those that enter our house are quickly sentenced to death; of course, I am the designated executioner. Last week, she spotted a wolf spider on the family room rug and, when I grabbed it with a napkin, eight or more tiny young scurried from its body, soon to meet their own fate if they remain indoors.

Wolf spiders are common in gardens and around human structures. Unlike the web spinners, they run down their prey, haul it to a secluded spot and devour it, a behavior for which they are named. Females lay their eggs in sacs that remain attached to their abdomen; once hatched, the young ride on her body for a period of time, feasting on one another or on other morsels of food derived from her victims.

In gardens, wolf spiders usually establish a silk-lined den from which they conduct their hunting forays. Since they destroy many harmful insects, their presence is welcomed by most gardeners, at least by those not victims of arachnophobia.

The Nature of America

Few would argue that, when it comes to personal freedom, economic opportunity and natural resources, the United States has more to offer than any other country on the planet. And, for naturalists, its diversity of ecosystems and spectacular scenery are second to none.

But, for all its gifts, America has its share of problems and, in some ways, has a greater negative impact on the global environment than most countries. The king of consumption, America puts pressure on ecosystems across the planet and, on a per capita basis, is well ahead of other nations when it comes to the use of fossil fuels. At the same time, the U.S. is the primary exporter of guns and weapon systems and the leading consumer of illicit drugs. Our education system lags behind many countries and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. More than 140 years after the Civil War, racism festers across this country while much of our attention is focused on dysfunctional celebrities, "reality" programmi…

North America's Summits

In summer, many of us yearn to escape to the high country, where the air is cool and where spectacular vistas stir the soul. What better time to consider the mountainous topography of North America and ponder the summits of our Continent?

Our highest summit, with an elevation of 20,320 feet, is Denali (also known as Mt. McKinley) in the Alaska Range; other prominent ranges in that State and their summits (in feet) include the Brooks Range (Mt. Isto, 9050), the Chugach Mountains (Mt. Marcus Baker, 13,176), the St. Elias Mountains (Mt. St. Elias, 18,008) and the Wrangell Mountains (Mt. Blackburn, 16,930). The Coast Range of British Columbia tops out at Mt. Waddington (13,176) while Mt. Robson (12,972) is the highest point in the Canadian Rockies. Mt. Ranier (14,411) is the tallest peak in the Cascades and Mt. Whitney (14,505), west of Death Valley, is the highest summit in the Sierra Nevada (and the tallest mountain in the lower 48 States). Mt. Elbert (14,433), in Colorado, is the highes…

The Brain Taboo

Medical science has advanced to the point where we understand the structure of our various organ systems and, in relatively accurate detail, can correlate these physical components with their respective function. Knowledge about the structure and function of the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, muscles and bone is of interest to many (if not most) people and we have entered an era in which many of these body parts can be replaced via transplantation or mechanical devices.

But, when it comes to the brain, such interest is tempered by a reluctance to attribute human thought and emotion to a physical network of neurons and chemical transmitters. While studies on the nature of dreams, savants, strokes, brain injuries, neurologic disorders and psychiatric diseases can be fascinating, we hesitate to relegate the brain to the status of other organs. We find it hard to accept that our conciousness and intelligence are the products of biologic components and processes alone. Despite the overwhelmi…